Looking beyond the "RED"

by Simon de Carvalho '14

"What do you see?"

This is the opening question that the character of Mark Rothko asks his assistant Ken in RED, the 2010 Tony Award winner for Best Play, which will be playing at Boston’s Speakeasy Theater Jan. 6-Feb. 4, 2012.

The play, directed by David Gammons ’92, is the focus of one of the Office for the Arts’ Wintersession offerings, Rothko and ‘RED’: An Artist’s Life on Stage, which will feature a viewing of the play on January 19, and then a discussion on Jan. 20 about Rothko and art with Gammons as well as Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, the head of the Harvard Art Museum’s Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art. The project is supported by the Peter Ivers Visiting Artist Fund through the OFA's Learning From Performers program.

I spoke with Gammons (a VES concentrator while at Harvard) about his production and the messages it sends about art and the process of making art.

Some plays, when they become involved with commentary on the act of making art itself, become overly heady and self-indulgent. But RED, says, Gammons, "manages beautifully to be both a play about a relationship—there are only two characters—and a peek inside the window of the studio; you get to see the process by which these paintings are created."

While the play does build a dynamic relationship between the two leads, there is a good deal of theorizing about art. Rothko says, "Painting is 10 percent putting paint on canvas—the rest is waiting and thinking." Much of the play features Rothko staring at his mural (located on the fourth wall between the audience and the stage); somehow, something so simple and silent creates tension—there is art beyond the physical result of the painting.

And then there is the quote from which the play draws its title. Rothko tells Ken: "There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend: One day, the black will swallow the red."

Gammons says he does not believe this is a real Rothko quote (he hasn’t been able to find it in his research), but it ties in to the central theme of the play, which is the struggle between the artist and his art. "Rothko committed suicide about 10 years after the events of the play," says Gammons, "so there is this pervasive sense of impending tragedy in the play."

He also notes this powerful (actual) quote from Rothko: "There must be a clear preoccupation with death, intimations of mortality; tragic art—romantic art—deals with the knowledge of death."

All of this is not to dissuade the reader from wanting to see the play or participate in the Wintersession program (sign up!), although I do realize this is getting a bit grim. Instead, the weightiness of this subject matter should allow us to consider the power of art and the power of making art—for some, like Rothko, it was literally a matter of life and death.

But how can life and death be contained in the art of Rothko? A lot of this question will likely be discussed in the panel portion of the Wintersession program, and Mancusi-Ungaro will discuss her efforts at restoring other Rothko murals and the challenge of presenting the artist’s intent in the process. The questions will be asked and perhaps answered, but you must get over the first hump: The fact of the matter is, Rothko’s art is abstract—the meaning is somewhere else, it’s in the 90 percent that is not on the canvas.

And so the answer to the question that starts the play becomes so very important: What do you see? And, perhaps equally important, how can you see anything?

Gammons has an apt anecdote. "When I was a VES major, I was taking an art theory class in the Carpeter Center. We had an assignment where we had to select a photograph and write a description of the contents of the photograph. Purely an objective ‘What do you see?’—which is, of course, the first line of play. The only thing is, it was a 20-page paper. Once you’ve exhausted what you think you see, you still have another 16 pages to write. But as excruciating as it was, it was on of the most profound pieces of work I did as a student—you have to keep looking and look deeply and look beyond your immediate impression to see something deeper."

So look deeply, consider everything, and then figure out what you see. It may be something amazing.

[Caption: Thomas Derrah, as Rothko, and Karl Barker Olson, as Ken, in SpeakEasy Stage Company's "Red." SAGLIO PHOTOGRAPHY, INC.]

[Caption: Gammons with Derrah and Olson. SAGLIO PHOTOGRAPHY, INC.]

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